Fashion between tolerance and politics 

Nayera Yasser
9 Min Read

Growing up with stereotypes is both confusing and pressuring. In many parts of the Middle East, women are often categorised based on mistaken concepts and outdated ideas. The women of Iran are a controversial topic that often ends with generalised assumptions that could not be further from the truth.

Recently, many Iranian women have decided to take matters in their own hands to communicate their true identity and reality. Hoda Katebi is a true example of a cultural ambassador. The elaborate Iranian writer, photographer, and activist living in Chicago does not hold back from speaking on behalf of young local women.

Through her fashion blog, Joojoo Azad, and her photographic book, Tehran Streetstyle, Katebi aims to shed light on the truth of Iranian women and their fashion. Through her regular blogs, Katebi links fashion and hijab to politics and global business trends. Meanwhile, she also captures casual sceneries from the everyday streets of Tehran.

Other than women from her homeland, Katebi also seeks to highlight the unfortunate conditions Musilm women endure in hidden sweatshops. Many global brands depend on illegal workshops in order to reduce retail costs on the expense of women that are over worked and under paid.

Daily News Egypt talked with Katebi to discuss the recent spread of hijab-wearing models on international runways, as well as the apparent political Islamophobia that is being met with tolerating fashion, despite brands’ dependence on Muslim women in illegal sweatshops.

Through her blog, Katebi aims to shed light on the political importance of fashion  (Photo Handout)
Through her blog, Katebi aims to shed light on the political importance of fashion
(Photo Handout)

How can hijab-wearing models walking on international runways impact Middle Eastern fashion creatively and financially?

There are a lot of factors that would go into answering this question!

Do the models wear the hijab outside of the runway, or are they just wearing it to tap into a billion dollar industry or be politically on-trend while they continue to exploit Muslim women in sweatshops?

In today’s political climate, the already-existing hijab fashion industry is harmed by brands coming out with hijabs on runways to feign support for Muslims while they continue to exploit Muslims in their factories abroad.

When Nike came out with a new “pro-hijab” campaign, they were hailed as revolutionary and game-changing, erasing the fact that Muslim-owned and Muslim-designed brands have been creating sportswear for hijab-wearing women for years. And now, they also have to compete with one of the largest brands in the world.

How would you evaluate the importance and influence of Halima Aden’s participation in a few key runway shows, including Yeezy?

There is no doubt that Halima Aden’s signing as an IMG model is beautiful and groundbreaking. Representation is vital, and I would have loved to see more Muslim, hijab-wearing women as fashion icons growing up—especially given she is a Black Muslim refugee.

But, at the same time, as models typically get little to no say in what runway they walk in, I found Kanye’s usage of Aden in his runway particularly problematic: how can Kanye pretend to be “pro-Muslim” or “pro-refugee” while simultaneously outwardly endorsing a president whose policies continue to create refugees and then proceed to ban them from the US?

Is modest fashion week a necessity, or is it discrimination against hijab-wearing women?

I do not see modest fashion week as either a necessity or a form of discrimination. I do find it to be valuable, as it gives Muslim women the platform to showcase their work designed with Muslim and hijab-wearing women in mind; but, at the same time, I do not think a fashion week designated specifically for “modest-wear” is a necessity. We have been coming along fine without them for centuries.

If you can choose one face to represent fashion in the Middle East, who would it be?

Given the incredible diversity, history, and political significance of fashion in the Middle East over the years, I do not think it would be possible to pick a single face to represent an entire region’s fashion!

Even for one country alone, that would be difficult. Underground fashion in Tehran, Iran, is wholly different from streetwear in Mashhad, Iran.

How can fashion be used as a global language that Muslim women can use to communicate with the world?

There is little doubt that fashion is a powerful tool of communication. Fashion is an important expression of culture, identity, and ethics (although the latter is less overtly visible and depends more on where you chose to purchase your clothing from).

As someone who oftentimes finds comfort in loud, bold, clashing colours and patterns, it is difficult to look at me and see me as weak, docile, or oppressed—tropes that are always associated with Muslim women and tropes I get to twist and shatter just by getting dressed in the morning.

One of Katebi’s most-highlighted topics is the significant issue of exploiting women in illegal sweatshops  (Photo Handout)
One of Katebi’s most-highlighted topics is the significant issue of exploiting women in illegal sweatshops
(Photo Handout)

What is the most common western stereotype regarding Iranian women and their fashion?

Just google “Iran women” and you will see the same images that are constantly blasted on our television screens here in the west: women wearing all-black from head to toe and the chador (a long covering that is worn over clothing and usually held under the chin).

Images of militancy, violence, oppression, and darkness are always recalled when speaking to people about Iranian women and the ways in which they are required to dress in public.

Yes, there is a state-sponsored dress code, but it is also important to note that it is minimally followed and scarcely enforced.

What encouraged you to publish “Tehran Streetstyle”?

For exactly those reasons above, my book Tehran Streetstyle challenges mainstream, orientalist misrepresentations of Iranian women, as well as domestic Iranian government dress codes. I celebrate the diversity and complexity of underground and largely illegal fashion found in the streets and alleys in Tehran, while also exhibiting a diversity of interpretations of modesty and hijab.

I finally decided to publish after pleas from both my western audience yearning to learn more about my culture and Iranian fashion (which is fair, given that there are not many of us who document Iranian streetstyle!), as well as underground Iranian fashion designers I interviewed for my ethnographic research, who asked me to create something celebrating our people and challenging media renditions.

Many well-established global brands have introduced limited-edition abaya/modest collections. In your opinion, have any of them succeeded in truly reaching out to Middle Eastern women?

The hijab/modest-fashion industry is worth billions. There is no doubt that well-established global brands are using limited-edition abaya/modest collections as a way to profit from this industry.

And there is also no doubt that seeing mainstream clothing brands cater to you and your taste is exciting, after years of them pretending you do not exist.

But we should never be so easily swooned by surface-level inclusion at the expense of exploitation of our sisters in their factories abroad. If you really want to reach out to the Muslim community, please start with your sweatshops.

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